After scaling the side of the fort, we looked down at its interior, a grassy expanse the size of a few football fields.
The Gaelic word cuirt translates as to hold court, or preside over a group of admirers. The related term ag cuartaiocht describes a time-honored Irish custom of dropping in to visit neighbors, once a daily practice on the Aran Islands and elsewhere in Ireland. Today, that tradition of cuartaiocht is in decline; in fact, according to some, it’s almost extinct.
But if the meaning of cuartaiocht might be stretched just a bit to encompass the act of hospitality, then Maureen proved to me that the tradition is alive and well.
Maureen is the island librarian—and one of 11 children raised here. They grew up in a home that is now a museum commemorating the stay on Inis Meáin between 1898 and 1903 of Irish playwright John Millington Synge and the Gaelic revival of the late 19th century associated with the country’s nationalism movement. Maureen’s sister Treasa spearheaded an effort a number of years ago to convert the former family home to the museum; known as Teach Synge, or “Synge’s house,” it’s been open as such since 1999.
In 1980, the population of Inis Meáin was more than double what it is today, with 256 residents. Maureen said now there are 30 houses on the island in which only one person lives, and 26 with two members in the household. In 1965, 105 children attended the school. In September 2013, there were five pupils–three girls and two boys.
Down the road is the Church of Immaculate Conception and St. John, which was built in 1938 on fields donated by the two neighboring farmers. The church was built almost entirely by island residents, who numbered 300 at that time, with each family contributing a week or two of labor. The altar was built by James Pierce, whose son Patrick was a key figure in Ireland’s independence movement and 1916 Easter Rising rebellion. While the church was being built, mass was said each Sunday in the school; two weddings as well as several christenings were held in the school during construction.
The stained glass behind the church’s alter depicts the Virgin Mary flanked by St. John the Baptist and St. Enda. John the Baptist is the patron saint of the islands and he is celebrated every year on June 23 with a bonfire, sing-song, and mass—which, if the day was nice, is held outside, just to make it special.
I asked Maureen to describe what life was like growing up in such a remote spot.
“Before phones and TV, when work was done for the evening, all the islanders would gather in someone’s home,” she said. “They would talk about the weather, their cattle and any news of the day. Some women would bring their knitting and some folks would play cards. They would perhaps tell stories of old, have a sing-song, a bit of poetry, and then tea would be made and served along with some freshly-baked bread. Not sweets, plain bread.”
Maureen explained that cuartaiocht happened on any night and there was no specific house people went to. Visits would last two-three hours and people might leave gradually, at whatever time suited them.
“News didn’t make it to us when I was growing up,” Maureen said. “What you didn’t know didn’t bother you. People sat and talked–today they don’t have time for that.”
Maureen said that in 1961, a dance hall was built where they had a Ceili a few nights a week— a Ceili is traditional Gaelic social gathering, which usually involves playing Gaelic folk music and dancing. The term is derived from the Old Irish céle meaning “companion” and the gatherings often facilitated courting and prospects of marriage for young people. Originally, a Ceili was a social gathering of any sort, and did not necessarily involve dancing.
Radio was very important to islanders as it provided weather forecasts and was the main way of communicating with the rest of the world. Maureen said her father listened to Gaelic football on the radio on Sunday. The radios ran on “wet” batteries, which were re-charged by immersion in a solution, usually done in a local shop or on the mainland. Maureen said the island got electricity in 1977; before then, families used candles or “tilly lamps” for light, which burned paraffin oil.
“Once Inis Meáin got home phones and T.V.s that put an end to cuartiocht,” Maureen said.
I later had a conversation about cuartiocht—and change–with Madeline Mitchell, the proprietor of the Galway guest house I returned to on the mainland.
“We all did it before T.V.s and the telephone came into use as it is now,” said Madeline, who has owned Atlantic Heights since 1996. “When I was growing up, very, very few homes had a T.V. or telephone. My family owned Sweeney’s Hotel in Dungloe, County Donegal and its phone number was Dungloe 6. There may have only been 20 phones in the town in 1960’s so people went to each other’s houses to communicate–and spread the gossip!” -
Both Madeline and Maureen reflected with some sadness on the decline of the Cuartiocht tradition–but also noted some things haven’t changed.
“Now you need to make sure you wouldn’t be visiting during one of someone’s favorite “soaps,” Madeline said. “It used to be when TV first got here people would turn it off when you came by but now you have to talk over it.”
“Cuartiocht still continues in my home which I run as a B&B,” she continued. “Guests come from all over the world and I welcome them as I would welcome friends & neighbors, enjoying chatting to them. It comes naturally to me, luckily, as that was how my mother welcomed guests to our hotel so it’s in my genes.”
“Our discussions vary greatly, depending on what topics they are interested in–Irish culture, history or describing life as it was while I was growing up in Donegal,” she said. “I try to continue the spirit of cuartiocht and make my home as warm and welcoming as our homes all were long ago when we went ag cuartiocht.”
Maureen felt similarly.
“You haven’t the freedom to drop in since TV took over,” she said. “Even though cuartiocht has mainly died out, the islanders are still very dependent on each other and there is great community spirit. Your neighbors are very important and you help each other out. You have to all get along, you’re surrounded by the sea. We are all quite content.”
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